By his own account, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Washington this month with two goals. One was to continue his 15-year campaign to push Iran’s nuclear program to the top of the world’s agenda. That mission was accomplished, Netanyahu declared to the Knesset on Wednesday. The other aim was to hear Washington acknowledge that Israel has the right to launch a military operation on its own against Iran if it sees fit. “This position was positively received in the United States, I would even say in the most profound way,” he said.
With that, the Israeli Premier launched an extended argument for defying American requests for restraint and going ahead with a strike on Iran. He cited as precedent the bold calls of three of his predecessors: David Ben-Gurion’s decision to announce independence in 1948 despite the U.S. Secretary of State’s advice to wait; Levi Eshkol’s decision to launch the 1967 Six-Day War despite President Lyndon Johnson’s warning; and Menachem Begin’s 1981 decision to strike Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak (though Ronald Reagan appeared mostly amused when he heard about that strike, famously remarking, “Boys will be boys!”).
“I presented the example I just gave you to my hosts in Washington,” Netanyahu reported, “and I believe that the first goal I set — to strengthen the recognition of Israel’s right to defend itself — I think that goal was achieved.”
Never mind that, by the end of the speech, Netanyahu sounded as though the target of an Israeli attack would be the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave from which militants launched more than 200 missiles over the previous week, many of them supplied by Iran. “Gaza equals Iran,” he said, concluding the speech with the warning: “Sooner or later, Iran’s terror base in Gaza will be uprooted.” Analysts came away from the session convinced that the first target remains Tehran and debated whether he was indeed serious about going it alone or merely giving the appearance in order to keep international pressure on Iran.
The liberal Haaretz was alarmed. “Netanyahu is preparing Israeli public opinion for a war on Iran,” was the headline on the column of editor Aluf Benn. Benn quarreled with Netanyahu’s rendering of history, noting that in both 1948 and ’67, the Americans had privately signaled their approval of Israel acting. But the columnist took this as a signal that Netanyahu had gotten a similar wink from President Obama. He found supporting evidence in a 2,500 word column by the editor of rival newspaper Israel Hayom, the free daily owned by fierce Netanyahu (and Newt Gingrich) supporter Sheldon Adelson. In the piece, Amos Regev argued that the cost in Israeli lives from any Iranian retaliation must be measured against the far more devastating impact of an Iranian nuclear weapon launched at Israel. The editor also insisted that, whatever was said in Washington, Obama cannot be relied upon to act militarily against Iran down the road if Israel does not soon, before Iran moves more of its nuclear apparatus deep underground. “With or without the Americans, it will be difficult. It will be bold. But it is possible,” Regev wrote.
The question, of course, is whether it will also be effective. As we reported last month, a senior Israeli commander warned Netanyahu’s inner Cabinet in September that the country’s air force could not expect to set back Iran’s nuclear program by more than a matter of months — a year at most. “I informed the Cabinet we have no ability to hit the Iranian nuclear program in a meaningful way,” a senior security official quoted the commander as saying. “If I get the order, I will do it, but we don’t have the ability to hit in a meaningful way.”
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Meanwhile, the economic sanctions on Iran bite deeper and deeper. The Financial Times reports that the Islamic Republic’s oil production has dropped to a 10-year low and is still falling. With its central bank sanctioned and Iran now excluded from the international SWIFT system crucial to international banking, the government has been reduced to accepting Turkish lira and other local currencies (instead of more desirable U.S. dollars or euros) for its petroleum. It’ll even take canned goods or lawn mowers. What have you got? “A separate barter arrangement also exists,” the Iranian state press service quoted central banker Mahmoud Bahmani as saying. “Iran imports goods from China and India instead of the hard currency and faces no problem in this regard.”
It’s impossible, of course, to know what Netanyahu really intends. He may not yet know himself. But in the meantime, the more intent he appears on launching an Israeli strike, the more zealous Europe and others become about applying the coercive economic pressure that might force the mullahs to reappraise their relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Longtime masters of ambiguity, the Iranians may have met their match in Bibi.
“Only one thing is clear,” writes Dan Margalit elsewhere in Israel Hayom: “If there is any real chance of getting Iran to stop its nuclear development without the use of Israeli and/or American and/or European force, it is based on the ability of Netanyahu and his ministers to create a credible atmosphere, to prove that their warnings are not merely hot air.”